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Disabled workers’ experiences during the pandemic

Report type
Research and reports
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Before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic disabled workers faced huge barriers getting into and staying in work, including significant difficulties in accessing reasonable adjustments, in spite of the fact that this is a legal duty for employers.

The pandemic, and the huge changes it has caused to our everyday lives, has exacerbated the barriers disabled people face. Not only have disabled people been disproportionately affected in terms of loss of life, with six in 10 Covid-19 related deaths being disabled people, but pre-existing workplace barriers have been accentuated by the pandemic.

We conducted this research to better understand how pre-existing workplace barriers have been affected by the pandemic and the impact it has had on disabled workers.

One in eight disabled workers did not tell their employer about their disability, health condition or impairment, with many believing that telling their employer would lead to negative consequences.

Almost one in four of these (24 per cent) said that they did not tell their employer they were disabled because they thought that, as a direct consequence, they would be treated unfairly. And over a third (38 per cent) did not tell their employer because they were worried that if their employer knew they were a disabled worker they would think that they could not do their job.

These findings speak to negative workplace cultures where discriminatory attitudes towards disabled workers influence how safe workers feel to be open about being a disabled person.

These fears of being treated poorly are well founded. Our findings show that the prevalence of unfair treatment is alarmingly high. Around one third of disabled workers responding to our survey reported being treated unfairly at work because of their disability, health condition or impairment.

The research found that around one in eight disabled workers (13 per cent) were concerned their disability, health condition or impairment had affected how their performance would be assessed by their manager. A similar proportion (12 per cent) were concerned their disability, health condition or impairment had affected their chances of a promotion in the future. And 7 per cent had their commitment to their job questioned.

And one in 12 disabled workers (8 per cent) told us they had been subjected to bullying and/ or harassment, for example being ignored or excluded, singled out for criticism or excessive monitoring at work.

This reflects earlier TUC research, which found that the most common issues union reps had to tackle on behalf of members were disability-related.

Putting in place reasonable adjustments for disabled workers is one way to remove the practical barriers they face at work and ensure they are able to reach their full potential. Another way to remove the barriers disabled people face in work, and society, is to embed the social model of disability into UK law which would focus on the ways in which society is organised, and the social and institutional barriers that restrict disabled people's opportunities.

All employers have a legal duty under the Equality Act 2010 to proactively make reasonable adjustments to remove, reduce or prevent any disadvantages that disabled workers face. The law recognises that to secure equality for disabled people work may need to be structured differently, support given, and barriers removed.

However, our research revealed that getting and keeping reasonable adjustments in place is an ongoing issue for disabled workers. Before the pandemic, over four in 10 (45 per cent) of disabled workers who asked for reasonable adjustments failed to get any or only got some of the reasonable adjustments they asked for put in place and one-fifth (20 per cent) who had identified reasonable adjustments had not asked for them. This means that more than half of disabled workers 55 per cent who identified reasonable adjustments were not getting all the reasonable adjustments they needed. 

During the pandemic over half of disabled workers (53 per cent) reported they worked from home, with only around one in eight (13 per cent) having done so before this point. This resulted in many disabled workers needing new reasonable adjustments, for example access to speech-to-text for web-based meetings. 

However, the difficulties for disabled workers in getting and keeping reasonable adjustments continued during the pandemic with almost half (46 per cent) of those who requested reasonable adjustments failing to get all or some of the different/additional reasonable adjustments they needed to work effectively and, three in 10 of all disabled workers (30 per cent) who needed a reasonable adjustment had not asked for them. 

Both before and during the pandemic over two in five disabled workers were not told by their employers why their request for adjustments had not been implemented (44 per cent before the pandemic, 41 per cent after). This makes it very difficult for disabled workers to challenge the failure by their employer to implement the adjustments. Lack of an explanation as to why a request has been rejected could also amount to discrimination.

Health and safety issues were of real importance during the pandemic, with many workers asked to shield because they had a significantly increased risk of complications if infected with Covid-19. This group of workers were disproportionately likely to be disabled. The importance of employers taking steps to minimise workers’ exposure and risk of infection was paramount. However, health and safety issues were of concern during the pandemic with almost half (46 per cent) disabled workers who faced additional risk telling us they had not discussed any additional risks they faced from the virus with their employer because of their disability, health condition or impairment when they did face some. This rose to over half of disabled workers (54 per cent) who worked outside of their home during the pandemic.

Of those who had discussed the additional risks they faced from the virus one in four (25 per cent) said their employers had only ‘taken some action’ but not all actions possible and 7 per cent said their employer took ‘no action at all’ as a result. This was higher for disabled workers who worked outside their home during the pandemic with over a third of disabled workers (34 per cent) in this group saying their employers had only ‘taken some action’ but not all actions possible and 12 per cent saying their employer took ‘no action at all’ as a result.

It is clear that the existing legal protections and workplace initiatives used to identify and remove workplace barriers disabled workers face are not effectively addressing the scale and seriousness of the issues they encounter. Too often the current legislative protections are proving in too many cases to be paper-based protection only and not properly protecting disabled workers.

Our research also found that more than one in five (21 per cent) of workers advised to shield continued to work outside of their home most of the time. All workers advised to shield and who could not work from home should have been furloughed to protect their health. They should not have had to choose between their livelihoods or their health.

As we exit the pandemic it is essential that equality is at the centre of the road to recovery or we risk further entrenching the already significant discrimination and disadvantage that disabled workers face. We know, for example, that without access to reasonable adjustments disabled workers are at greater risk of losing their jobs. This is significant at a time of economic downturn with high job losses and has the potential to increase both the disability employment gap and disability pay gap. Evidence has also shown in previous times of economic downturns disabled workers have been the first to lose their jobs and the last to be re-employed.

We need urgent action from government in ensuring protections set out in the Equality Act 2010 are adhered to through provision of additional funding to the EHRC for enforcement action and for the EHRC’s Code of Practice to be strengthened with updated examples on reasonable adjustments implementation. This must be underpinned by new legislation introducing mandatory disability pay gap reporting aimed at providing greater transparency on disability employment and pay gaps and the steps employers intend to take to address them.

We need employers to improve compliance with their proactive duty to make reasonable adjustments both in disabled workers’ access to reasonable adjustments and the speed with which they are implemented. Action is also needed to tackle the discrimination and unfair treatment that too many disabled people face at work. These steps will in themselves help start to build disabled workers’ confidence in providing monitoring data.

Without effective workforce monitoring employers will not know if the actions they have taken have had an impact and disability pay and employment gap reporting will have limited impact based only on a partial view of disabled workers in the workforce. It is important, therefore, that when employers build confidence, it is not based on vague assurances but built through eliminating discrimination, addressing incidents of unfair discriminatory treatment and implementation of reasonable adjustments. The most effective way of shaping this action is around the social model of disability.

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